On May 8, NBC will air the 150th episode of The Blacklist. That's 150 episodes of twists, secrets, moral and ethical quandaries, and Red Reddington's crazy stories about his life of criminal adventures. (Well, 149 crazy stories, because Red wasn't in last week's episode). A few weeks before coronavirus pandemic shut down the country, TV Guide visited the Manhattan set of the crime drama during filming of the 150th episode, "Roy Cain (No. 150)," for a cake-cutting ceremony with the cast and crew -- where it was announced that the show would be back for Season 8 -- and talked to stars James Spader and Megan Boone and creator Jon Bokenkamp about the work that went into making 150 episodes, and their journeys through the show.
Spader described himself as "tired, but excited" about doing 150 episodes. He doesn't spend much time thinking about what he's done on the series in the past or how much longer the show will go on, preferring to take it in small increments. "I used to get very overwhelmed by it all, and still now a little bit prior to a season, it feels like I'm gearing up for a big long running race," he said. He's found that when he's not talking to the writers about long-range plans in his capacity as executive producer, he's much better off keeping his mind on the episode at hand. "For me, the job of an actor is really to take in the smallest increments," Spader said. "So much of my focus has to really be from here," he gestured to the couch he was sitting on, "to getting to the doorway."
Over the seven years of the show, Boone's personal journey has somewhat paralleled her character Elizabeth Keen's. Like rookie FBI agent Keen getting thrown into Red's unpredictable conspiracy in Season 1, Boone had never been a series regular on a TV show before, and now she was the second-billed actor working alongside movie star and three-time Emmy winner James Spader in front of millions of people.
"That was a time that felt so intense and uncertain," Boone said. "I was really being thrust into the media landscape at a time when social media was sort of exacerbating the criticism that women were having to take on, and also exposing how much more criticism women receive in the public sphere as opposed to men." It just takes a trip to Reddit to see examples of the criticism she's gotten, particularly comparisons between her acting and Spader's.
"Coming onto the scene with such a seasoned actor had incredible benefits for my work, and for my life experience," she said. "But I think from the public lens, there was this question of, 'Who is this girl?' And that worked really well for the story. But for me, that was a challenging place to be in. And I really felt like I had to prove myself."
If present-day Boone could give her Season 1 self advice, she would tell her she was OK, and showing up prepared and doing her work was enough. "And that's all you have to do, because what the show really needs is someone who's in your position, someone who's new, unknown, and less experienced than the man that you're stepping into the ring with," she said. "That was the dynamic that people tuned in to watch every week. And that was something that at the time felt very uncomfortable."
But now she's comfortable, and can sometimes feel a little too comfortable. "Now it's like when someone hands me a script and I open it and I thumb through the pages, it's as familiar to me as turning the knob to my door," she said. Boone's relationship to her job has completely transformed, as has Liz Keen, who's become as comfortable with deceit as Red is.
Creator Jon Bokenkamp remembered being desperate to just get through the pilot, not fully aware of all the work that was still to come, having come from a screenwriting background. "When you make a movie, you make the movie and then you go to the premiere and everyone slaps each other on the back and you're like, 'Great,'" he said. "And when the pilot was done, I was like, 'Oh my God, we owe another one of these next week, and then another one and another.'" He compared working on the show to the famous scene in I Love Lucy where Lucille Ball is eating the chocolates off the conveyor belt as fast as she can, but they just keep coming. "When you're in it, it's just very, very intense, and so it's easy to lose perspective on it," he said. "And I was just looking to try to get to 100. So the idea that we're having another cake is so mind-blowing."
At the time of the interview, Bokenkamp was working with the writers on finishing Season 7, not knowing that the season would be shut down early and they'd have to make the episode after the 150th the season finale, and they'd have to animate half of it. The Blacklist always has chocolates coming down the conveyer belt. Spader said that the show was renewed relatively early because the writers needed to plan for Season 8 in order to figure out exactly how to finish Season 7, though those plans will obviously now have to be redrawn to some degree. But things change on The Blacklist all the time -- Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) was originally supposed to die in the pilot, for example, but became one of the show's main characters through the first five seasons -- because that's the nature of the game when the game is making 22 episodes of TV a year as quickly and efficiently as possible. The only thing that's certain is that they've made 151 episodes, and at some point they'll come back for the 152nd, and they're thankful that fans continue to join them.
"There are an exponentially growing number of choices to tune into," Boone said, "and that [fans] continue to come back to our show is something that really makes me feel a sense of gratitude in the face of the labor that we've put into it. I feel the reciprocity there, and I am very grateful for that."
The Blacklist airs Fridays at 8/7c on NBC.